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Cook: No one comes away clean in ACC/Big East war

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Now that the latest and, presumably, the final phase of the Atlantic Coast Conference/Big East greed war has concluded with Miami going to the ACC, the Big East in ruins and Pitt and West Virginia facing years of second-rate football, there is only one thing left for us to do.

Take a long, hot shower.

Really, is there anyone associated with this whole sordid saga who doesn't make you feel dirty and sleazy?

We long have known there is little integrity left in major college athletics. Many of the student-athletes, as the NCAA hilariously likes to call them, can't read or write and are mere pawns who make millions for the universities. Many of the top coaches are unscrupulous cheats and liars who will do anything -- absolutely anything -- in the name of winning and making those millions.

But who knew that the school presidents were the most unsavory, the most unethical and the most money-hungry of all?

You can put Virginia Tech's Charles Steger at the top of that list. He went after an ACC invitation, was quickly rebuffed, joined a lawsuit with his Big East partners to stop the ACC expansion while pledging his unwavering loyalty to them, then needed about two seconds last week to run off to the ACC when a membership was unexpectedly offered. There is no more detestable figure in this sad story. But do you know what? If the ACC had thrown that same lifeline to any of the other Big East administrators, including Pitt's Mark Nordenberg, they, too, probably would have grabbed it in two seconds. Honor doesn't mean much when big money is at stake.

Then, there's Miami's Donna Shalala. She pledged her allegiance to the Big East even as she was romancing the ACC. In the end, she shamelessly pitted one league against the other to get the best deal for Miami. It actually hurt to see her explain yesterday why the ACC is the right place for Miami. Maybe she just practiced good business, but don't you expect just a little more from a university president? I know, we're naive.

How about the Rev. William P. Leahy of Boston College and Kenneth Shaw of Syracuse? They hooked onto Miami's star and were ready to bail out on their longtime Big East partners only to get jilted by the ACC. So what did they do? They crawled back to the Big East and led the unsuccessful push to keep Miami from jumping. It would have been comical if it weren't so sad.

What of those unconscionable ACC presidents? They don't care that they're changing the landscape of college football, perhaps for the worse. They certainly don't care that they're crushing the Big East like a bug. They wanted a super conference and stopped at nothing to get it. They didn't just dupe Boston College and Syracuse by informally extending invitations to them and then reneging on their promise. They took in Virginia Tech -- a school they didn't want -- because that's what they had to do to get the crown jewel, Miami. What price probity?

And let's not forget the Big East's other presidents. They filed their lawsuit against Miami and the ACC, yet, until the final minute yesterday, were sweet-talking Shalala -- a woman they find traitorous and offensive -- and offering to sweeten the pot to get Miami to stay. That's how desperate they were. So much for their faith in their legal action.

What does it say about the leadership of those Big East presidents and Commissioner Mike Tranghese that two schools are leaving for the ACC and two others wanted to leave? It doesn't give you a lot of hope that they'll be able to save their conference, does it? Now that the ACC has 11 members, it seems certain to follow through on its original plan to have 12 in the not-too-distant future. You don't think Boston College or Syracuse would accept an invitation in a heartbeat, do you?

No, the Big East looks dead, at least as a football power. Miami and Virginia Tech combined to win nine of its 12 football championships. The conference no longer deserves a seat at the Bowl Championship Series table and will lose millions in bowl, television and sponsorship revenue. Recruiting at Pitt and West Virginia will take a big hit. What top players want to play in a second-class league? Ticket sales at Heinz Field and Mountaineer Field will plummet. Who wants to watch second-class football, especially when there are so many other sporting events and entertainment options to choose from.

By now, of course, the Big East officials almost certainly have reached out to Louisville and to other schools not just in Conference USA, but in the Mid-American Conference and even the Atlantic 10 Conference. They'll stop at nothing to survive, at least as a big-time basketball league. They won't give a second thought to doing to another conference exactly what the ACC did to theirs.

It's going to take a lot more than one shower to feel clean again.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.

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